Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Employment (Εργασία)

When I finished my studies in New Zealand, I didn't know what job I wanted to do. The obvious one was in teaching, but my qualifications did not steer me right into this course; I went there by accident. During my studies, every day after school or university, I worked in my parents' fish and chip shop and McDonalds during the weekends and holidays. I reeked of food smells at the end of my working shifts, I had to hear out customer complaints, and I suppose I was really put off by the whole food work sector. It was smelly and dirty, people complained easily, and it always involved evening work. I knew that these jobs were not in the work sector that I had expectations of entering, but even so, I still didn't really have a clearly defined job in mind when I finished my formal education.

After six years of tertiary studies (BA in Linguistics, MA in Sociolinguistics and Diploma in Teaching English as a Second Language), I realised that teaching was something that cold possibly interest me, but I could not be a NZ schoolteacher, because that required another two years' training in Teacher's College. At the time, when NZ immigration policies were in a transition period and the world was becoming more mobile, there were few options available to me to teach English as a second language in NZ, as I did not fit into the desirable paradigm of the NZ ESL teacher; for a start, the students were mainly Asian, and the teachers who were being hired tended to be Asian emigres, as well as people who had spent time teaching English in Asian countries*. Apart from the massive economic changes that had taken place in New Zealand at the end of the 80s, for which I was completely unprepared with my arts degree, the climate of political correctness gave more opportunities to non-Europeans than it did to middle-class white people in the fields of immigrant education. Middle-class whites belonged to the 'office' sector - lawyers, accountants and other kinds of pen-pushers, who had done their OE around Europe wearing jandals and sneakers, and were now coming back 'home' to 'settle down' into a respectable life, where they would take on responsibilities such as wearing a suit and tie (or scarf) to work, maintaining one partner instead of sowing wild oats, and entering the property market with their 'first home' (which obviously denotes that there will be a 'second home' coming along after that one). As the product of a comfortable but sheltered life that was culturally attuned to another homeland, I had clearly been brought up incorrectly. I was the wrong sort of Kiwi with the wrong sort of education: cheers Aotearoa; yiasou Ellada.

I had heard from my compatriots that teachers of English as a foreign language in Greece were highly sought after. Being a native speaker of English was more than enough to secure a job teaching English in a private language school in Greece; you did not need any tertiary qualifications. You could even become the owner of a such an institute (known in Greece as a frontistirio) yourself simply by procuring a certificate of proficiency in the English language (the kind that organisations like the Michigan and Cambridge Examinations Boards offer). Since my studies related to this field, I started working in one such frontistirio in Athens, and to my surprise, I actually enjoyed what I did. I had a lot of things that I wanted to teach my students, and generally speaking, they showed interest in what I had to tell them. My boss thought I was quite good at what I was doing too: he gave me a pay rise after one week (seriously).

There was only one thing I absolutely hated about my job, from the very first day that I started, to the very last time I was in a class with a group of schoolchildren. I hated the hours. I had already worked evening hours for 10 years in NZ, something I detested; I hated every minute that I had to leave my home in the searing heat of the middle of the Greek day until the late night hours when I left the school to come back home again. Is Greece the only country in the world where primary and secondary school children go to public school during the day (or the afternoon every alternate week, a system which is being phased out slowly, but is still lagging on even now - something to do with not enough school premises), then private school from the afternoon until the evening, finishing on most nights at 10pm? The children in my last teaching session (it started at 8.30pm and finished at 10.20pm) had been turned into zombies throughout the day, before they came to my class. 

Although I didn't have a family then, I wondered how on earth I could even contemplate doing that with a job like my one. Did the state seriously believe that a woman (English language teachers in Greece are 90-95% female, judging from all my work/teaching environments up till now) would be raising children who she would see in the morning before she dropped them off to school, and then in the evening when Dad (or Grandmother) had tucked them into bed??? Not only did I have a gripe with the hours, but the work was not available for the full year - I was 9 months in work, and 3 months without, which meant that I would have to fill out countless forms and collect a myriad of documents to go on the unemployment benefit for that period, which at the time, covered my rental costs (and nothing else).

During my frontistirio days, I was working with quite a few other English teachers who were Greek citizens born in other countries (like myself). They were much better than I was at telling jokes (while I was much better at teaching English than they were). Every now and then, for example, when Katy couldn't control the class and they weren't listening to her boring lesson, you could hear her from the next room screaming at the pupils: "Well, at least I didn't end up working behind a supermarket check-out!" 

In those days, it sounded funny, because I didn't have kids myself. Now that I do, I know that working behind a supermarket check-out is better than being unemployed, especially in a place like Hania, where the jobs available are not always the ones we desire or dream to do. There is a lot of work available in Hania, but it mainly revolves around agriculture and tourism. The jobs are not the kind you normally associate with promotion or careers. Not only are they hands-on, dead-end, service-sector jobs, but they are also seasonal, and at the end of the season, you are unemployed. Working in a supermarket sounds much more stable.

When I decided to move to Hania, my old employer referred me to my new employer, who had enough work to hire me for just two days a week in his institute. I accepted work one more day per week in another frontistirio in another town 75 kilometres away from where I lived. Because I finished lessons there after the last bus had left, I had to spend the night in that town and leave the next morning. Working three days a week does not bring enough earnings to live independently, so I took on another job for the remaining two days, working during the midday period (2-5pm); at least I had a couple of evenings free, unlike most of my colleagues, who wouldn't have been able to claim that job in the first place, as it not only required a university degree, but post-graduate studies as well. These were all 9 months on/3 months off jobs too.

I gave up working in the frontistirio world two years ago, when my kids entered primary school, because I found that my psychological state of mind was suffering, and all because of those wretched late evening hours. I decided that either you were born a day person or an evening person; I was a definitely a day person. Summer was approaching, and I decided to look through the papers, not for more work of the kind that I had already been doing, but to see if there actually was a different kind of work available, that a prospective employer would consider me for. My only priority was that the work could not involve evening hours, as I had already been doing that for 17 years, and this is the reason I wanted to change jobs.

The job situation then is not much different from the one people looking for work in present-day Hania would be facing. A random look through the local newspaper* just after the start of the tourist season reveals a limited range of jobs: of the 133 job ads, 62 of them involved the food industry, mainly as cooks, waiters and other positions in cafes, bars and restaurants, while another 20 were directly involved in the tourist sector (souvenir shops, rental car agencies, hotel work, etc). Then there were jobs relating to a specialised trade, eg aluminium welder, horse-riding instructor, manicurist, etc. I have never seen any state-sector positions advertised in the classifieds; they come through government circulars or (nowadays) related web sites. There are also other jobs that do not seem to be advertised through the newspapers, notably supermarket jobs; these are often found out about through word of mouth, employment offices (?) or from insiders. Obviously, the newspaper ads do not accurately reflect the employment situation in Hania. It should also be noted that the job situation in the winter changes drastically, since most (if not all) of the businesses related to tourism close down.

There are also some issues relating to the wording of some ads that would make me think twice about applying for the jobs: "No foreigners" or "preferably a Greek" is a common theme (also appearing in housing ads), as is "must be good-looking", especially concerning hotel/bar work and always in connection with female workers. When an ad states "must have papers" or "must speak Greek", this shows that the job is probably not suitable for Greek people, eg babysitting or caring for senior citizens, who are often cared for in their own home; most likely a Greek woman will already be caring for a member of her own family, so this kind of job wouldn't suit her. Some ads also state "free of military commitments", which denotes that the work would be more suitable for males; wording such as "free of family commitments" gives a clue as to the hours and location (open all hours, a lot of travelling required). None of the ads mentioned the wages/salary; in contrast, nearly all mentioned the hours.

Eventually, by a stroke of luck, at the same time that I decided to give up working in the language institute,  the graduate position I already held became a part-time day-hours position, so I didn't have to look for another job after all. I know I'm lucky to be working where I am, doing work I'm particularly suited for (proofreading, translating, teaching in an academic environment), in a town with very limited opportunities for creative work. But I can't help thinking about the probability of my children finding work that will be based on their qualifications in the same way that their mother did. Maybe they will have to accept that if they want to stay in their hometown, they will have to take on any job that comes their way (including becoming a taxi driver). Either that, or they must learn to think of the family home as their holiday home, while they live away from it, like their grandparents who immigrated to New Zealand for the chance to improve their lives, and their own mother, who emigrated from New Zealand, returning to her parents' homeland for a chance to improve her own life.

Crete is one of the regions in Greece where there is work all year round. In the summer, there is the service sector in the tourist industry, while in the winter, there are jobs in the agricultural sector, and positions for teachers in private educational institutes. They may not be the job a young person starting out his/her work life is seeking, but it shouldn't be treated as the end of the world if you are doing a job you don't really like. You may have decided that quality of life is more important than having a career. You may see more benefits in location of residence than range of work choices. But wherever you work, you need a good work ethic. You need to remember that you will start at the bottom, and that the conditions will seem harsh for a long time. Forget about comparing your earnings in Greece with those in, say, Germany or the UK, or the US; that is false economy, since you are not taking the daily expenses of living in such places into account. That will only make you think you are being wronged (maybe it is they that are getting too much for what they do).

I'd like to see a different approach to working in Greece: instead of the one where everyone is constantly complaining about the low wages and the limited range or work, and looking down on work in the trades or service sector, I'd like to see people taking pride in their work so that they will be more effective, efficient and productive in what they do. There is work out there, but it's not always going to be the kind we 'want to do' (which is why foreigners do it instead, from cleaning dishes in a restaurant to picking olives, from selling koulouria on the street to painting and building houses, and they are always in pocket; Albanian migrants are said to have a sizeable proportion of their income in bank accounts). I don't think a 3-5 year period of economic hardship is going to make the Greek people change that part of their character so easily.

*It was the fashion in English language teaching circles of NZ at the time to go to China on some kind of pre-arranged teaching contract.

**Haniotika Nea, daily newspaper in Hania, 30-4-2010. Many of the ads were similar, especially the waitering and hotel jobs; some of these ads referred to more than one available position. 

UPDATE: A check in the same paper one fortnight later reveals that some of the jobs advertised at the end of April are still being advertised in the middle of May (!), with roughly the same number of ads in total (128). And in the beginning of July, we find a mere 65 ads (half the number at the beginning of the tourist season), half of which are concerned with the food sector. Very little changes in this small summer resort town in the middle of the Med...

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